Ava Sawyer and her mentor, Jason “Bird” Hardison, are using their best dogs today. It is the first day of 2022 and the last day to hunt with firearms in North Carolina. They pick up Skittles, Charlie, Rosco, Oakley, Boomer and Opie, all Walker hounds, and one by one pull them from their chain-link pens to the cage or “box” in the bed of Bird’s pickup truck.
Ava’s favorite dog, Hershey, is resting. Yesterday, he wouldn’t come back until after midnight. Bird finally caught him at 12:53 this morning.
“I had to tackle him in the woods,” he says.
Ava is 13 years old and known as a good shot. A photo of Hershey adorns the home screen of Ava’s phone, which she holds while she climbs into the passenger seat of the truck—next to her rifle—for the ride to the hunting grounds. A camouflage coat protects her legs from the cold. She is thin; her arms are almost always folded across her chest. She crunches the ice from her Bojangles tea and unwraps a bacon, egg and cheese biscuit, as she does every morning of her winter vacation. She is in 7th grade and the youngest member of the Forks of the Creek Hunting Club.
She says she doesn’t get nervous. I ask her what she is thinking about.
“About that buck,” she says, talking about a buck she spotted a few days ago.
Ava has been out with her dogs almost every day since hunting season began on October 16—after school and also on weekends and every day of vacation from 7:30 a.m. to whenever she and Bird catch their dogs. On some days, that’s 2 a.m.
Bird taught Ava how to hunt when she was 6. He, like most hunters, saves all of his vacation time for hunting over the holidays. (He works at Bay River Sewer, where he drives the excavator.)
“They call him Bird because he hunts in any weather,” explains Ava. She doesn’t have a nickname yet.
They turn onto a dirt road that traverses land that the hunting club leases. Bird drives his 4WD pickup on the muddy dirt roads with his head out the open window, looking down for deer tracks.
Chatter starts to pick up on a ham radio mounted to his dashboard. “I’m at the red gate,” says a voice. “I’m ready,” says another. “We’re about to make this thing rock, boys,” says a third.
It rained last night. The mud is thick and black as motor oil. Bird passes about 15 other pickup trucks as well as the pig roast that has been on the fire since 6 a.m. for the Club’s New Year’s celebration later in the day. The cook has a rifle ready just in case he sees a deer.
Through the window, Bird fist-bumps someone, tells him Happy New Year and chugs an energy drink. Two turkey feathers are displayed on the dashboard alongside an antenna for the radio collars the dogs wear in case GPS fails. The dogs wear three collars: GPS, radio and one for identification.
One hunter can’t make it in the deep mud and passes Bird his dogs. Bird pushes them into his box. From the truck you can hear their tails smack the inside of their box with excitement.
Ava and Bird take the furthest position, at the “bear hole,” a spot where bears are often seen crossing the road. They park. Ava gets out and pets the dogs through the bars. They let them out, pulling them into the thick woods.
Then, they listen. At first the woods are so quiet that the sound of a jet in the distance is amplified and I become aware of the wind through the trees. They watch the dogs on the GPS screen mounted to Bird’s dashboard. On the ham radio, the hunters from the club joke and update each other. They are waiting for the dogs to track the scent of a deer.
“They are about to jump,” says Bird, talking about when the dogs start barking loudly, a sign that they are close behind a deer.
“There goes Rosco,” says Ava. They know the sound of each dog’s bark from a mile away.
“Get ready, Ava,” Bird whispers.
Ava has a 270 Remington rifle with a purple sling to hold bullets. She squats low to the ground in front of the truck, pointing the rifle down the muddy road and waits. Nothing comes.
The official limit is two bucks and six does. Ava has shot 5 does this season. Now, she’s focused on getting the buck she spotted earlier in the week.
When the dogs stop barking in the distance, it means they haven’t found any deer. Ava and Bird hop in the truck and collect them when they emerge onto dirt roads nearby.
They pass Stephen “Cool” Pipkin, who is hunting with his grandson. He just shot a doe, which is now on his tailgate. It’s his first kill in two years. The hunters from the club eat all the meat they harvest during hunting season, or they donate it to people in need.
“My wife won’t eat it, but she’ll cook it for me,” Cool tells me. He cleans the deer with a knife beside the dirt road. The sooner the better; it is a warm day, which means the meat can go bad if not cleaned and refrigerated soon.
Driving down the road, Bird and Ava find their dog Opie. Rosco and Oakley are still out.
They run into another hunter, Gail Hager, who is beaming. It’s her first time hunting with dogs.
“Before I did this, I used to see these dogs and feel bad for them. Now I see that hunting is what they love. The dogs live for this,” she tells me. She is the only woman other than Ava whom I’ve seen today.
Back in the truck, Bird and Ava continue listening to the radio and watching the GPS for their remaining dogs. “I saw six but wasn’t ready,” says a hunter, speaking of the deer he missed. “It’s a disgrace.”
“I’m going into the triangle,” says another.
“I saw one in the Brinson block,” reports a third.
It’s now close to 1 p.m. and time for the pig roast. Ava and Bird say they are starving. But after they eat, they will head back out until the end of the day to keep looking for that buck.
If you have ideas for future bulletins, feel free to message or email me: downinthecountyPC@gmail.com
To see more photos, follow me on instagram @andreabruce